Ceci N'est Pas Un Bateau
Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush
(Pantheon Book, 2014)
This is not a book about an aircraft carrier. What is it? That’s not easy to say. In many short chapters amounting to a short book, Geoff Dyer chronicles his two weeks as writer in residence aboard the USS George H.W. Bush, using himself as a not-so-transparent lens on Navy life. He tours the carrier bit by bit, goes on a helicopter patrol, attends a bible study class, complains about the food, is intimidated by the gym, witnesses promotions, abstains from drugs and romance, watches planes take off and land, et cetera. The resulting account juxtaposes Dyer’s independent, literary-minded outlook with the regimented, technically focused ethos of those aboard ship.
This is the first book in the Writers in Residence series, an experiment led by Alain de Botton in which pairs of writers and photographers document daily life in places where the ordinary doesn’t usually make it into the news. Without the context of the series, it might be surprising to pick up a book about an aircraft carrier and find the writer talking, with humor, about his every discomfort and opening chapters with lines like, “One of the perks of having my own room was the freedom to fart whenever I felt the urge.” It’s not surprising for Dyer, however, whose first-person, self-aware, self-indulgent, almost stream-of-consciousness voice is characteristic. But Dyer’s subjects are often, though not always, artistic—photography, literature, jazz. This book, on the other hand, is ostensibly about a practical and technical subject with which Dyer has basically no knowledge or experience. Might this book lean more toward reporting? No, Dyer writes about his time on the aircraft carrier the same way he writes about everything.
The collision of style and subject matter is intentionally funny. For example, when he’s lobbying for his own room: “But we writers need a room of one’s own, I claimed, trusting that the grammatical damage would be more than offset—in the eyes of the Navy—by the Virginia Woolf allusion.”
While amused, I was also a bit frustrated by the lack of reporting, the facts that remained dubious, the lack of context. I was annoyed that Dyer did not quickly point out the importance of aircraft carriers, the overall purpose of the mission and therefore how this story relates to the John Doe reader. Dyer knows this isn’t his forte. “The longer I spent aboard the carrier, the more convinced I became that of all the kinds of writer I was not, ‘reporter’ was at the top of the list.” Likewise, I know that straight reporting isn’t Dyer’s style. But habit does not justify an approach.
The more I read, however, the more I came around to Dyer’s narrative tact. Facts and details are only useful insofar as they add to a story or argument or help sketch a character, and the carrier itself didn’t seem to offer much of a story. For example, Dyer accompanied two security officers on their rounds. He recounts their typical day: “Round and round we go (just as I’d gone round and round in the helo a few days earlier) with Chris and Myrl doing their bit, scouting out sneak spots and linen-cupboard liaisons, not expecting to find anything and glad, in a disappointed sort of way, when they don’t.” A traditional news story of course depends on the journalist finding something and explaining why it is out of the ordinary. But how to describe the ordinary itself, as Writers in Residence aims to do? What do you focus on? Perhaps Dyer’s own experience was the best source of literary potential after all. Life on the carrier was out of the ordinary for him, and it’s this contrast—Dyer’s self-proclaimed inability to get used to anything versus the idea of “sucking it up”; the Navy’s reliance on rules and systems versus Dyer’s mixing and defiance of literary genres—that gives this book any kind of conflict to be resolved, if only in Dyer’s mind.
Still, even his deepest revelations do not make this a great book. It’s funny, thoughtful, and at times factual, but it’s not very much of any of those things. It is possible to write compellingly about everyday experiences in nonfiction and to draw from many genres in doing so. “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” David Foster Wallace’s essay about his time on a cruise, amazes because it is at times very funny, at others, absolutely depressing, and throughout, full of precise observations and facts. Wallace’s piece is quite long but also satisfying. Dyer’s book is a literary donut, an overdose of words that left me hungry for something more substantial.